The western arm of the East African Rift System is one of the most important locations for the conservation of mammals, birds, and freshwater fish in Africa. This region extends from the northern end of Lake Albert to the southern end of Lake Tanganyika, and encompassing the land on either side of the western Rift Valley.
The region straddles several countries: Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania.
The Albertine rift comprises unique geographical features which include escarpments, dissected relief and cliffs, undulating hills, Rift Valley flats, rivers and lakes. The area is also a transitional zone for three of Africa’s bio-geographical regions (Sudano-Sahelian, Guinea-Congolian and Zambezian).
The variety in geographical and biological features combines to produce a region of complex ecosystems and high biological diversity, as well as magnificent scenery.
For this reason, it is one of the richest biodiversity areas in Uganda; and this is well reflected in the many protected areas congregated in this region. The rift area is one of the biodiversity hotspots in the country and is the most important area for bird endemism in Africa.
The World significance of the Albertine region, therefore, is unquestionable. The region is home to many plant and animal species that are endemic to the region. These include the mountain gorilla, mountain monkey, golden monkey and 42 species of birds as well as many reptiles, amphibians and fish.
In Bwindi Impenetrable and Kibale National Parks, scientists have recorded 173 species of polypore fungi, which is 16% of the total species known from North America, Tropical Africa and Europe.
Additionally, the mountains and forests in this region are important watersheds for the supply of regular and clean water to both surrounding and distant communities.
The lakes in the Albertine Rift are some of the most productive in Africa. The region is also a key attraction for eco-tourists.
The Murchison Falls National Park which borders the northern end of Lake Albert at the Nile delta is the largest National Park in Uganda and is an important tourist destination. This park has a high ecological importance for a number of globally and regionally threatened species of mammals and birds, among others.
A wide variety of vegetation ecosystems and species are known to exist in the region: on the mountain and escarpment slopes and in the valleys and flats. The main vegetation ecosystems include montane forests, tropical forests (including riverine and swamp forests), savannah woodlands and grassland mosaics, papyrus and grassland swamps.
The rich and varied flora of the region provides habitats for an equally wide diversity of animal communities and species. The short and medium grassland savannah is preferred by animals like the Uganda Kob, often in association with piaepiacs which feed on ticks on Kobs. The grasslands have great potential to support a high biomass of wild animals. It is common to find distinct ecosystems being a preference to certain animals.
For instance, the phoenix reclanata swamp forest ecosystems are frequented by elephants and buffaloes, the Capparis tomentosa scrub woodland around the lakes are places frequented by the bushbuck, while tall grasses in depressions are often a favourite refuge for the buffaloes.
The extensive network of Celtis-Chrysophylum and riverine forest associated with the numerous rivers that flow from the mountains and highlands on either side of the National Parks and Wildlife Reserves normally draining into the lakes, provide important habitats for chimpanzees, monkeys such as black and white colobus monkeys, and red tailed and blue tailed monkeys, while vervet monkeys and herds of baboons range throughout these conservation areas.
The wildlife areas are also a habitat to lions, leopards, bohor reedbuck, the giant forest hog and warthog, hippopotamus, waterbuck, the African jackal and several other animal species. Open waters provide a unique ecosystem for animal life. Mammals such as hippopotamus, crocodiles and sitatunga commonly occur in the estuarine and delta swamps, and other wetlands flanking open waters. In particular, crocodiles inhabit the shores of Lake Albert and River Wasa (Wango area).
The Albertine region is very rich in bird species whose habitats range from forest and grassland to wetlands and deltas.
The delta area on Lake Albert shores, for example, is a convergence zone between the River Nile that flows through the lake, and fifty other tributaries, which flow through shallow papyrus swamps. The swamps are well known for wide variety of water birds, including the Shoebill. The delta species are part of 400 already known in the whole of Albert and Murchison Falls National Park area.
Biodiversity outside protected areas
There is also a wealth of biodiversity outside protected areas. Unfortunately, the bulk of this is either already disturbed or threatened while some of it is already extinct. Conservation of this biodiversity requires land-use based incentives to land owners and users. Oil exploration and development will certainly escalate the threats to this biodiversity.